Effort-based Experience Rewards

by Mike Shea on 6 September 2010

In his blog, In the Eye of the Beholder, D&D producer Greg Bilsland states that experience points are a good way for a newer dungeon master to build battles and award PCs for their efforts. In this same article, Greg describes how he advances PCs based on milestones in his story.

I tend to like experience points. Players enjoy seeing quantitative rewards and experience points are one such quantitative reward. While handing them out might be completely arbitrary, having numbers you can add together makes your game feel a little less on the rails than simply giving out levels at certain points in the story.

At higher levels, however, creature experience rewards don't often match the amount of effort a battle took. What if we rewarded experience points based on effort instead of the actual budget of the battle? Today we're going to look at a very simple method to award experience points that gives DMs control over the pace of their game, rewards players for the effort of the battle, and continues to give players a quantitative measure of their characters' progress.

That's a pretty long setup to a simple idea so let me get into the meat of it. As you get to know the capabilities and tactics of the PCs in your group, you'll begin to see where they have an easy time and where they have a harder time. Perhaps they have a very easy time fighting solo monsters but a more difficult time fighting multiple elites. Maybe a handfull of minions might give them a hard time or perhaps you could throw thirty or forty minions at your group and they hardly notice. Should you really give them the same experience for every one of those minions?

You might begin to have a hard time designing encounters based on traditional experience budgets. Instead, as you begin to understand your group, just start building encounters you know your players will enjoy and others that will give your players a real challenge.

Instead of determining the experience reward for a battle ahead of time, you instead would reward experience based on how the actual battle went. Did the group have a really easy time? Maybe that makes it worth their level - 2. Did they have a really rough go of it? Maybe that's a level +3. Was it a good solid battle but not too challenging? Perhaps that is simply worth their level.

When it comes time to give them experience, you can look up any standard monster at the level you determined matches the challenge of the battle and award that creature's experience to each member of the party.

For example your group of level 17 PCs fight in a battle against a solo, two elites, and twenty four minions in a room built to really give them a hard time. You watch how the battle goes and it does indeed give the PCs a hard time. Multiple PCs are bloodied over the course of the battle, one of them even dies. They blew a bunch of healing surges and most of their dailies. From this, you determine that the battle is probably a level 21 encounter (level + 4). Now you look up what a standard level 21 creature's experience cost is (3,200) and reward that to each PC in your group.

This same calculation can be used for skill challenges, quests, or any other experience-based reward you might want to give your group. Determine the challenge level, look up the experience for a single standard creature of that level, and reward each PC that amount of experience points.

This method is probably best left to dungeon masters who have played quite a few games and understand their group. Like the upcoming changes to item rarities, this puts experience rewards back into the hands of the dungeon master. If you're in one of those groups that thinks about farming experience by killing easy things, this gives you a way to ensure they receive only what they deserve (probably nothing when it comes to farming) and helps you guide them to the areas that provide the best challenge.

So if you're beginning to feel like you reward too much experience for easy things and too little for difficult challenges, give this method a try. It lets you regain control over the pace of your game, reward what deserves to be rewarded, and still gives your players the joy of tracking the progression of their characters.

If you enjoyed this article, you might enjoy the Lazy Dungeon Master. You can also support this site by using these links to purchase the D&D Starter Set, Players Handbook, Monster Manual, or Dungeon Master's Guide. Send feedback to @slyflourish on Twitter or email mike@mikeshea.net.